Born in Christchurch in 1940, Athfield’s early strengths in art and mathematics led a local teacher to suggest that he might become an architect. As he grew older he became interested in the brutalist architecture of Miles Warren, Maurice Mahoney, Peter Beaven and others. His professional career began in Auckland in 1962, and in 1963 he and his wife moved to Wellington. After five years at Structon Group, and a controversial dismissal, he set up practice from his home in Khandallah, opening Athfield Architects in July 1968.
From the outset Athfield Architects were designing residential, commercial, cultural and civic buildings which often defied both regulations and accepted norms. Boundaries were continually pushed, and humour injected, and this is nowhere more evident than in his own home in Amritsar Street, acknowledged by Athfield as ‘probably his most important building', and which now accommodates a whole community of family, architectural staff, builders, children, animals and beehives.
Under his directorship, Athfield Architects won well over 100 design awards and has also been the subject of a number of books, magazine articles and documentaries along with an exhibition at Wellington's City Gallery in 2012. In 2004 Athfield was the recipient of the New Zealand Institute of Architects' highest honour, the Gold Medal, and from 2006 - 2008 he was president of the NZIA. In 2006 he became the first New Zealand architect to be registered as an APEC Architect. In 2012 he was the recipient of the DINZ John Britten Black Pin Award for services to New Zealand Design. He was named a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2014 New Year's Honours List.